Becoming–or simply being–a survivor

Survivorship is on my mind after staying up late last night to watch the first Chilean miner emerge from what he and his 32 coworkers described simply as hell. It had been 70 days since a rock collapse first trapped them in a 600 square foot room more than half-a-mile underground. Many did not expect them to make it—at the time of writing, there are 22 to go, along with four rescuers—but if everything continues to go well, they will all soon be safe on top and see themselves as survivors. What strikes me is that those facing cancer start at the same place—the emergency begins with the disaster of a diagnosis—but you never get the crystal clear answer you’re looking for. That you’re a survivor.

As Elaine Schattner wrote in Slate last week, “cancer survivor” can be a problematic phrase. When I was diagnosed in the 1980s, five years was the magic number—the amount of time people said you had to be alive after diagnosis to be considered a survivor. But this was simply a benchmark that researchers used to look at survival rates for different cancer types, which also depended on how early the cancer was detected. For example, the five-year survival rate for a person with one type of brain tumor might be 90%. But for a person with another tumor type, it could be 10%. If they’re alive after five years, are they both “survivors”?

Then there’s the representation of survivorship based on the number of months or years that 50% of patients survive, which is called the “median survival time”.  Here’s this scenario. You’re diagnosed with cancer, you ask if you’re going to make it, and your doctor tells you that with your particular kind of cancer, 50% of people survive three years. It doesn’t give you a lot of clarity, but it is one of the few ways that doctors and medical researchers can quantify survivorship.

I subscribe to the idea—as many do these days—that you’re a cancer survivor if you’re alive after your diagnosis. Everything else is arbitrary, and I don’t like to think of things in terms of chances anyway. I had a grade III astrocytoma, for which the median survival time with treatment was 18 months, and I finished chemo more than 20 years ago.

What I think is most important after treatment, from a psychological perspective, is how—and where—you see yourself. I didn’t give myself the option of dying, but I was scared of it for years. And for a long time I was scared of living—would cancer come back if I allowed myself to have fun? If I could talk to that 15 year-old kid—me back then—I’d say that your diagnosis is a message from the universe to do everything you want to do, everything you dream of doing. I’m doing my best, as a cancer survivor, to listen to that now.

enjoyed this post? share with others:



  1. October 13th, 2010 | kriste says:

    although i’m a stroke survivor, not a cancer survivor, i agree that the psychological part is important. i early on thought of myself as a stroke victim. my attitude changed once i switched my thoughts to survivor.

    listen to the universe and that 15 year-old! they know what’s up.

  2. October 30th, 2010 | Nicolas says:

    Super post, tienen que marcarlo en Digg


leave a comment